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February 01, 2006

Defending academic freedom

Michael Bérubé, a literature and culture studies professor at Penn. State University, has written a lecture (now an essay) on the academic freedom of the professoriat and the demands by (radical right) conservatives to demolish it, through state-oversight, in the name of... academic freedom. The Medium Lobster would indeed be proud.

As someone who believes deeply in the importance of the free pursuit of intellectual endeavors, and who has a strong interest in the institutions that facilitate that path (understandable given my current choice of careers), Bérubé's commentary resonated strongly with me. Primarily, I just want to advertise Bérubé's essay, but I can't help but editorialize a little. Let's start with the late Sidney Hook, a liberal who turned staunchly conservative as a result of pondering the threat of Communism, who wrote in his 1970 book Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy that

The qualified teacher, whose qualifications may be inferred from his acquisition of tenure, has the right honestly to reach, and hold, and proclaim any conclusion in the field of his competence. In other words, academic freedom carries with it the right to heresy as well as the right to restate and defend the traditional views. This takes in considerable ground. If a teacher in honest pursuit of an inquiry or argument comes to a conclusion that appears fascist or communist or racist or what-not in the eyes of others, once he has been certified as professionally competent in the eyes of his peers, then those who believe in academic freedom must defend his right to be wrong—if they consider him wrong—whatever their orthodoxy may be.

That is, it doesn't matter what your political or religious stripes may be, academic freedom is a foundational part of having a free society. At it's heart, Hook's statement is simply a more academic restatement of Voltaire's famous assertion: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In today's age of unblinking irony (e.g., Bush's "Healthy Forests" initiative) for formerly shameful acts of corruption, cronyism and outright greed, such sentiments are depressingly rare.

Although I had read a little about the radical right's effort to install affirmative action for conservative professors in public universities (again, these people have no sense of irony), what I didn't know about is the national effort to introduce legislation (passed into law in Pennsylvania and pending in more than twenty other states) that gives the state oversight ability of the contents of the classroom, mostly by allowing students (non-experts) to sue professors (experts) for introducing controversial material in the classroom. Thus, the legislature and the courts (non-experts) would be able to define what is legally permissible classroom content, by clarifying the legal term "controversial", rather than professors (experts). Bérubé:

When [Ohio state senator Larry Mumper] introduced Senate Bill 24 [which allows students to sue professors, as described above] last year, he was asked by a Columbus Dispatch reporter what he would consider 'controversial matter' that should be barred from the classroom. "Religion and politics, those are the main things," he replied.

All I can say in response is that college is not a kind of dinner party. It can indeed be rude to bring up religion or politics at a dinner party, particularly if you are not familiar with all the guests. But at American universities, religion and politics are two of the hundreds of things we discuss on a daily basis. It really is part of our job, even — or especially — if some of us have unpopular opinions on those subjects.

How else do we learn but by having our pre- and misconceptions challenged by those people who have studied these things, been trained by other experts and been recognized by their peers as an authority? Without academic freedom as defined by Hook and defended by Bérubé, a university degree will signify nothing more than having received the official State-sanctioned version of truth. Few things would be more toxic to freedom and democracy.

posted February 1, 2006 10:45 PM in Simply Academic | permalink